Longtime blog readers will no doubt recall that year Jewish Friend and I went on the quest to find the best macaroni and cheese in Providence. Even if you’re reading this right now thinking I’m not a long time reader, will I understand this quest? Trust me, you get it, unless maybe you’re lactose intolerant, or for some reason, hate mac and cheese, and if that’s the case, I don’t think we have anything in common anyway.
I, like most Americans, have had a long time love affair with macaroni and cheese. It began with Kraft’s blue box, and has gotten decidedly more gourmet and fatty over the years. Since Jewish Friend and I both agree that La Laterie has the best macaroni and cheese in Providence (with Red Fez a close second), it was time to expand the pool of cheese.
Jewish Friend recently moved to Albany, which is something I disagree with whole-heartedly, but she did it for love, so I won’t be too mean about it. Since moving, she has been peppering conversations with fun facts about all the literary adventures to be had in Albany, how nearby it is to cool things that I and other people she likes would enjoy visiting, and basically racking her brains with ways to entice her friends to make the three hour (partial toll) drive north.
I was already planning to visit, when she told me about the mac and cheese bowl.
Every year, in order to raise money for the food bank, the regional newspaper and their famous food critic gather together restaurants from around the region and give them the challenge to come up with the best mac and cheese. People pay $15 to get in, and then it’s all you can eat plus the privilege of voting on the top three. It’s pretty much my idea of heaven, if heaven is a Marriott ballroom.
It was amazing to sample that many varieties of the same food in a single day. It’s amazing how different one mac and cheese recipe can be from another, even though it’s basically the same thing, and it’s amazing how many of those mac and cheese recipes were essentially casserole and not mac and cheese at all.
Of the 32 restaurants participating, about 15 had put meat of one kind or another in their mac and cheese. People added beef, bison, pepperoni, other sausage varieties, lobster, crab, and one restaurant had created some kind of Mexican fiesta dish with two kinds of meat, jalepenos, tortilla chips, sour cream, guacamole, and a bunch of other stuff. The list of ingredients took up a full page (in about 28 point font). Sure, if they hadn’t added the meat, I would have gone to town on that particular dish, but I would also never have called it macaroni and cheese, and I don’t think they should have gotten away with it. I mean, the instructions are right there in the name: Macaroni and Cheese, not macaroni and cheese and anything else you can think of.
My thoughts are, in order to make it a fair competition, you get one add-in ingredient, otherwise, it’s not mac and cheese. In enjoyed the crab macaroni and cheese because I felt like the crab added a delightful texture without overpowering the dish. Then someone else pointed out that it tasted a bit like tuna casserole, which may be why I enjoyed it so much (tuna casserole rules). Obviously, people are going to vote for the meatier dishes, because people like meat, but there was also a lot of attention paid to a booth that served simple rotini pasta in a delightful creamy sauce–they didn’t need all of those extras.
Mac and cheese is a simple dish, and even Jewish Friend who loves bacon, said after a while that the bacon and other meat flavor jsust distracted you from what was supposed to be the star. So my challenge to the restaurants that participated is to cut out all the meat–or at least cut down on it. If you can compete without leaning on people’s love of beef, then you just can’t compete.
*Note: the title is horrifying, but I just couldn’t resist